The Importance of Beauty in Our Lives

One of the more interesting aspects of May’s My Quest for Beauty is the personal role that art played in his life. At the beginning of his career while teaching English in Greece he says, “…I had what is called, euphemistically, a nervous breakdown.” He finds the answer to that breakdown on Mt. Hortiati.

While walking down the mountain he finds a “a field of wild poppies covering the whole hillside.” This sight evokes these lines from Wordsworth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils…

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in spritely dance.

I thought how good it would be to sit among these flowers and draw their forms so that I would never forget them. So I went back to the house and borrowed a pencil and pad and came out to kneel among the pop- pies to sketch them. They made an imprint on my mind that seems as vivid today as it was then.

This is the drawing that I did that sunny morning:

May's Poppies Sketch

As a result of this incident, May’s concludes that:

I realized that I had not listened to my inner voice which had tried to talk to me about beauty. I had been too hard-working, too “principled” to spend time merely looking at flowers! It seems it had taken a collapse of my whole former way of life for this voice to make itself heard. This inner voice hereafter would always be redolent with the slight perfume that covered the hillside that morning.

I find this incident particularly interesting because I had some similar feelings when I was in Vietnam and first came home, though it has less to do with beauty, per se, than with literature I’d read helping me to make “sense” of, or, at least, integrate, what happened in Vietnam into my life. I remember telling a friend afterward, that for the first time in my life I really understood what Camus was saying in The Stranger. I still think that my literary background better prepared me for war than those who lacked that background. Great artists, particularly great contemporary artists, help maintain sanity in an ever-changing world.

Later, when I was teaching I found that hiking in the mountains particularly in late summer when flowers were in bloom was a great way to “recharge my batteries,” that I needed those escapes in order to devote the hours that I did to teaching English during the rest of the year. Of course, I also took numerous trips to the beach, to recharge, too. Beauty has been a vital part of my life, making it possible to cope with the less pleasant aspects of our daily existence.

About half way through this work, May introduces a selection of his watercolors with this statement:

Painting is not something done chiefly with a brush and some colors. It is, rather, a way of seeing the world. I shall always remember the surprise I felt on observing the different members of a painting class working on the coast at Rockport. One would have sworn they were painting different scenes: here one emphasizes the ocean there another makes central in his painting the two sailing vessels coming into the harbor, another sees the fishing shacks on the dock as the main theme of her painting, and so on.

You do not have to argue from the point of view of different styles —this one abstract, this one realistic, and so on. No; the important thing is that each saw the same world but they were painting quite distinct and different responses to this world. One’s actual painting is done inside one’s imagination, and it is a function of how the individual relates to the world. The threadbare story of the blind men feeling the elephant and saying it is like a rope, a piece of leather, a rug and so on, is true on a more profound level. Each of us sees the world as an individual, alone, caught up in a vast maelstrom; but by our culture we learn to communicate with our fellow human beings. Poetry, dancing, painting and other arts are all ways of communicating. The philosopher Kant said we not only see the world but the world conforms to our way of seeing it. This is certainly true in the field of art.

The great contribution of art is that, in our threescore and ten years on this planet, we are enabled to share, to give to each other, to communicate, to love the world and, in the broad sense, to love each other. This will sound strange to those who think the world is a cold mass of whirling star dust, but not to those who can form their world in communication by whatever beauty they can see and experience.

I’m sure that many in our society would reject May’s view, those same people who question the value of an old-fashioned “Liberal Arts Degree.” I remember when I applied at a local newspaper after my tour in Vietnam they made it clear that they only wanted graduates with a journalism degree even though my writing courses far outnumbered the number of writing courses required to be a journalism major. I suspect that I would never even be offered the business jobs I was offered then because they now require a business degree.

How many public schools have eliminated music and art in order to emphasize the “basics?”